Monday 22 November 2021


Perceptions of languages

Most Year 9 pupils at schools in England recognise the importance of speaking other languages in understanding different cultures and places, a new survey from the British Council has revealed.

Nearly three quarters (72 per cent) of pupils agreed that speaking other languages was ‘an important part of being able to understand different cultures and places.’ 72 per cent of pupils also agreed that languages were a useful skill to have for many future careers, and 41 per cent said that understanding another language was relevant to their life.

The British Council commissioned the YouGov survey of Year 9 pupils in England to explore their attitudes towards language learning pre-GCSE. GCSE subject options are usually chosen towards the end of Year 9. 49 per cent of pupils said they planned to study a language at GCSE, with 24 per cent still undecided.

When asked to pick their top three reasons for learning a language, pupils said: 

  • To communicate with people from other countries and cultures (49 per cent); 
  • To make travelling abroad easier (42 per cent); 
  • To improve their career opportunities (29 per cent).

However, languages were perceived as ‘more difficult’ than other subjects at school by more than half (53 per cent) of Year 9 pupils in England. 30 per cent of pupils said they didn’t need to learn another language when English is spoken widely around the world.

Most popular languages

Asked which language they would most like to speak fluently, Spanish proved to be the most popular, chosen by 29 per cent of pupils. This was followed by French at 15 per cent and German at 10 per cent.

These findings broadly reflect the British Council’s 2021 Language Trends Report, published this summer, which found that French was the most popular language studied at Key Stage 3 (age 11-14) and GCSE – although if current trends continue, it is likely to be overtaken by Spanish by 2026. French is taught at 91 per cent of state schools and 92 per cent of independent schools in England, followed by Spanish at 74 per cent and 89 per cent of state and independent schools respectively. German is taught at 70 per cent of independent schools but just 36 per cent of state schools – a noticeable decline since 2018.

Outside of the ‘big three’ languages (Spanish, French, and German), 9 per cent of pupils said they would most like to speak Japanese fluently, 5 per cent Mandarin Chinese, and 4 per cent Russian.

Languages at GCSE and beyond

The YouGov survey found that parental influence may play a significant role in pupils’ GCSE choices. 78 per cent of pupils planning to study a language at GCSE said they had been encouraged to do so by their parents/carers. Of those pupils not intending to study a language at GCSE, just 25 per cent said their parents had encouraged them to study one.

Enjoyment of the subject and pupils’ self-belief in their own abilities was also likely to have an impact on GCSE choices, the survey found. Of the pupils who planned to study a language at GCSE, 72 per cent said that they currently enjoyed learning languages, compared to 16 per cent of those who did not intend to study a language at GCSE.

65 per cent of pupils who planned to study a language at GCSE believed that they were good at learning languages, but just 19 per cent of those who did not intend to study a language at GCSE agreed with this.

More than half (55 per cent) of pupils who planned to study a language at GCSE said that learning foreign languages formed part of their future study and career plans. However, just 11 per cent of those not intending to study a language at GCSE saw a place for languages in their future study and career plans.

Value of international experience

71 per cent of pupils agreed that trips abroad and communicating with native speakers form an essential part of learning a language. However, the 2021 Language Trends Report found that the pandemic has contributed to the continued and significant reduction in international opportunities at schools in England. These include not only trips abroad but activities such as partnering with a school abroad, involvement in international projects, and hosting a language assistant.

The British Council All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) has called for all young people to have access to international experience and skills before leaving school, with particular focus on the most disadvantaged areas of the UK. In its recent report, ‘The value of international experience’, it set out a series of recommendations for government that include: 

  • Offering international opportunities in the national curriculum; 
  • Instituting a National Languages Strategy, learning from global best practice and forging international partnerships to enhance learning; 
  • Building on the strong platform of existing outward mobility schemes by expanding their scope and including funded reciprocal arrangements.

 The British Council has a unique track record of supporting international exchange in formal and non-formal education and the arts over the last 80 years. For example, its International School Award rewards schools that have shown a commitment to embedding international awareness and understanding within their class or school, whilst Connecting Classrooms Through Global Learning is a joint initiative with the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office which enables school partnerships between the UK and more than 30 countries across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.

Gender outlook on languages

The survey found that Year 9 boys at schools in England generally had a less positive attitude towards language learning than girls. Nearly one in five (19 per cent) boys thought that learning languages was a ‘waste of time’ and one quarter (26 per cent) disagreed that understanding another language was relevant to their life.

43 per cent of boys said that languages were less important than other subjects at school, compared to 32 per cent of girls. Previous British Council research has found that the rate of boys’ entry and attainment in languages are consistently below those of girls, with girls more than twice (2.17 times) as likely as boys to enter and achieve at least a grade 4 in a language GCSE.

Vicky Gough, British Council Schools Adviser, said: “Languages enable us to work together on global challenges, as well as opening doors for pupils to discover new people, places, and cultures. Pupils quite rightly recognise that international experiences, such as trips abroad, are an essential part of language learning – so it’s vital that schools look to build back the international opportunities and connections that have been damaged by the pandemic. The benefits of having language skills and some understanding of other cultures cannot be overstated, particularly as the UK renegotiates its place on the world stage.”

Mark Logan MP, British Council APPG Vice-Chair (East Asia), said: “International experiences inspire young people far beyond the classroom. Learning a language is coupled with a greater understanding of different cultures. It broadens horizons, breaking down barriers and opening the door to opportunity – but too often it’s the most disadvantaged pupils who miss out. These pupils must be provided with the opportunity to develop intercultural skills and understand the life-changing benefits. We should celebrate the UK’s rich linguistic diversity and promote language learning beyond the formal curriculum, to reach pupils who might not think that taking a language GCSE is for them.”


Notes to Editor

For media enquiries and to arrange an interview with Vicky Gough, British Council Schools Adviser, please contact

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,062 13- and 14-year-olds. 648 are currently in Year 9. Fieldwork was undertaken between 5th – 12th November 2021.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all English 13- and 14-year-olds.

  • Read the 2021 Language Trends Report here 
  • Read the British Council APPG report, ‘The Value of International Experience, here

About the British Council

The  British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We build connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and other countries through arts and culture, education and the English language. In 2019-2020 we reached over 75 million people directly and 758 million people overall including online, broadcasts and publications. Founded in 1934 we are a UK charity governed by Royal Charter and a UK public body. We receive a 14.5 per cent core funding grant from the UK government.